A systems driven game with a cool aesthetic, filled with Eurojank, Cyberpunk 2077 should have been right up my alley. Why’s it currently up there for the most frustrating game of the year then?
Cyberpunk 2077 was first announced by CD Projekt Red (CDPR) in 2012, and in 2018 was given a 2019 release date. There were then multiple delays to ostensibly fix bugs. Including one to work on the day one patch after the game discs had been printed. The game was finally released on December 10th 2020.
In late 2019, CDPR reached out to the games press to garner good will. They did this by specifically stating that they wanted to avoid overworking employees with overtime or “crunch”. (Which was an issue on development of The Witcher 3)
This was as a result of enthusiast game audiences becoming more vocal on crunch. CDPR wanted to be seen as “Consumer Friendly”. According to reports, due to the delays in 2020, staff at CDPR have been crunching for a while before release. Patches are currently in development post release.
Over the course of the build up for Cyberpunk 2077 they led a marketing campaign and social media presence that could charitably be described as “edgy” and “transgressive”. What it actually did through these deliberate marketing choices was broadly exclude minorities, in particular members of the Trans community, and erode the good faith many in those communities may have been willing to afford CDPR. Actively choosing to antagonise minority communities for marketing buzz isn’t transgressive, and hiding behind the flimsy defence of “In the context of the game it’s satirical” doesn’t work when you repeat the same things verbatim in the real world.
Finally, there were the actions of CDPR around the launch of Cyberpunk 2077. They took every option available to delay the audience seeing the game in action. Review codes were sent out on a very short timescale before release, to only select reviewers. Reviewers were only able to review the PC version of the game, without being able to display their own footage.
Until the days before the launch, it was impossible to see how the console versions performed. (This review is for the PC version at ~Recommended system settings. Assume every systemic complaint is still valid while considering other criticisms of the games stability and performance on console)
CDPR also stated that they would take legal action against any individual who posted footage/screenshots of the game before launch. This was ostensibly to “stop spoilers”.
It was not to stop spoilers. It was a deliberate attempt to hide the state of the game (especially on PS4/Xbox One) from the audience.
All of the above impacted the game, and it’s development. Nothing exists in a vacuum. It was not “just marketing” because it still helped to prime the audience that engaged with it for the game. There are going to be hundreds of thousands of players who never heard a word about the various issues in the run up to Cyberpunk 2077’s launch. But all of these things affected the game itself, and actively hurt people, whether parts of the audience think they’re important or not.
So with that primer in mind, what is Cyberpunk 2077?
Everything Old is New Again
Cyberpunk 2077 is loosely an adaptation of the Tabletop Roleplaying Game series, Cyberpunk. First released in 1988, the series setting captures the worst excesses of an 80’s style corporate dystopia. The game system is built around lethal combat, stylish and transgressive characters and the question of how human you can be while choosing to replace your flesh with machinery.
Going by that, you might expect this game to also be an RPG. Also based on the fact that CDPR’s most famous title is The Witcher 3. You’d not be entirely wrong. CDPR have been marketing the game as an “open world action adventure narrative” in the Cyberpunk setting. There are however, a few holdovers from their RPG roots that permeate the game and it’s systems.
In terms of touchstone references, the best analogues would probably be a watered down version of first person immersive sim games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but with the open world feel and tone of something like a Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row. (A comparison CDPR have been quick to capitalise on with their “Take Over Night City” marketing)
It’s 2077. The world has been ravaged by corporation sponsored wars, the internet has been fragmented by a terrible virus and Night City, California has seceded from the United States as its own independent region. It’s a city run by and for the corporations, where a near completely useless police department uses lethal force as a matter of cause, when they’re not subcontracting to mercenaries, and gangs run everything that isn’t under the purview of a boardroom. Capitalism run rife, the city is a neon paradise of 80s themed decadence and regression.
You’ll be playing as V. They’re a gun for hire in the concrete playground of Night City, driven by making their mark on the town.
You’ll be playing as one of three backgrounds for V. Each changes your playable prologue and can affect conversations throughout the game by giving you relevant options:
- Streetkid: (You grew up in the slums of Night City, you are your crew run the Streets)
- Nomad: (You grew up on the desert outskirts of Night City, you and your clans run the smuggler trails)
- Corpo: (You grew up in the houses of privilege, you and your boardroom buddies run the corporations)
It’s a little limited compared to the class system and background of the tabletop game, but the structure of Cyberpunk 2077 was never really going to support mechanical implementation for esoteric stuff like Rockerboys or Proper Netrunners.
Then we get to character creation. Much excitement was made of this when it was announced, in particular there was a great deal of news made from the detail on age rating sites that you would be able to customise V’s junk.
In reality, the whole character creator is underwhelming. A selection of predefined facial features, hairstyles and skin tones, depending on which body type you pick. You can have some very limited surface level cybernetics, a few scars and maybe tattoos. It’s incredibly limited, because the player has such little influence over the base setup. It doesn’t fit the stylish and transgressive themes that define the tabletop game.
Specifically, there are only two body types. You are either feminine coded V or masculine coded V. Either skinny and feminine or so broad and masculine you’re literally V shaped. That’s a specific distinction being made because following the previews for the character creator, members of the audience noted that, for a game about customisation and control over your own body, holding to a strict binary didn’t make sense. (Amid marketing jokes about genital choices, See previous comments about wearing down good faith in minority communities)
So, CDPR attempted to change their plans, seven years into development. Now, body type is disconnected from gender. Unfortunately, now gender (and the choice of one of two pronoun sets) is tied to the players choice of voice. Of which there are two. Male coded and Feminine coded. It’s clumsy at best.
The actual problem is that CDPR didn’t plan any of this out to begin with. So the literal thousands of lines of voice work for both forms of V was already complete, as again this was seven years into development, and they tried to adapt very late in the day. A lack of planning from the outset, plus challenges in adapting because of the games scope is a theme that recurs throughout Cyberpunk 2077.
“Substance” over Style
But alright then, assuming the initial character creator is underwhelming, surely the clothes and fashion of 2077 can be relied upon to give the player a feeling of agency over their V. After all while the game is played in first person, you’ll be seeing yourself in mirrors, cameras, driving sequences, and every time you open the inventory.
This is a cyberpunk setting so everything should be neon, neoprene and wistfully nostalgiac for the 80s.
And it can be! There’s some really well designed clothing sets in the game. It’s entirely possible to dress your V as a cyber goggle wearing hacker, a pressed suit wearing Corporate stooge or a washed out biker. You shouldn’t and won’t though.
Cyberpunk 2077 holds onto its RPG roots in some of the worst ways possible. Systems wise, every piece of gear you equip has an armour value, plus maybe slots for installing modifications. Now, in a fantasy RPG like the Witcher, armour is armour. It’s leather, or scale or plate. It suits. Barring a few special occasions, there’s a certain suspension of disbelief because it’s supposed to be gear you can wear all the time. By comparison, in Cyberpunk 2077, you primarily will be wearing recognisable modern clothes, not actual flak vests.
In Cyberpunk 2077, sometimes you want an Outfit. You want to, as I wanted to, wear a snazzy corporate dress to a meeting with a high roller. It’s fun. It’s role playing. Except the dress has a terrible armour value. So as soon as the meeting ends and combat starts, time to quickly change to your highest ranked gear, which will invariably be a hideous mismash of biker equipment, formal wear and combat surplus.
There are no other mechanical factors at play in your clothing choices. Unlike Disco Elysium or even something like Fallout, clothing provides no gameplay benefit other than armour to stop bullets. No bonuses to hacking or conversation challenges here.
If you want to play Cyberpunk efficiently, you are actively disincentivised from caring about how you look. Instead, especially considering you’ll be finding multiple new clothing items in every encounter, you may as well just select the highest armour value and be done with it. Style be damned.
Beyond that, you can’t even make changes to your character after creation is done. No changing haircuts, piercings, tattoos. Sure, you can go install new cybernetic implants, but with a few exceptions for hidden weapons like the arm blades, these make no changes to your actual character beyond stat changes.
There’s a certain darkly thematic element to a constant capitalistic upgrading process that only cares about the end result and output. If I thought it wasn’t an accident, I’d maybe give CDPR credit for it.
System Crash Detected
This all ties in with wider problems around the weapons and loot system in general. It doesn’t work for the melange of genres that Cyberpunk ends up being. You’ll constantly be getting loot highlighted in Cyberpunk. It’s literally impossible to not finish any mission with half a dozen new guns, 5-6 new clothing pieces and a stack of consumables and grenades. Plus several hundred dollars worth of junk items that can only be sold.
There’s just so much stuff. It’s partly there because this is built on the bones of an RPG. You kill bad guys and get loot. Partly it’s there because it adds to the immersion to find entertainment data shards in a gang hideout next to the personal quarters.
Except money and gear has no value. Playing through the game on hard mode (and I stress, not necessarily playing it well) meant I never had less than 50 basic health packs. Similarly I never ran out of grenades, consumable food or ammo. There was always loot to sell on top.
There are shops in Night City’s open world. I don’t know why. There’s zero incentive to ever use one. You’ll never require it for any gameplay purpose. There’s no reason to go to a bar or food stall. I bought clothes exactly once, to buy the aforementioned dress for the high roller meeting. After that mission I never wanted to try that again because it felt like a waste of time.
Same with weapons. I tried upgrading an assault rifle with mods early on, and by the end of the mission I’d replaced it five times as the next gun I gathered grew incrementally stronger. There’s sometimes value in keeping a specific type of weapon in your inventory because you prefer it for some mission types. Maybe it’s a non lethal shotgun, or a smart sniper rifle that corrects your aim. But again, this requires you to play the game inefficiently. You either ignore the loot systems, with their prominent “better” green arrows, or you engage and lose the feeling of choice and control. The loot system feels frictional between what the player may want to do, and what the game constantly recommends and requires.
And on top of all of that, there’s crafting in the game. Except as stated previously, what could you possibly need to make that you can’t find? It feels like it was added because modern CRPGs have crafting systems, plus disassembling gear for components would give useless gear another purpose beyond selling it. (Again, there’s really nothing meaningful to do with your money except buying ludicrously expensive vehicles and cybernetics). There are RPG systems supporting RPG systems in this game and none of them are even close to engaging or meaningful. They just exist.
It’s the same with the open world of Night City. It’s an aspirational idea that functionally doesn’t work in any meaningful way.
Don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely clear how much work has gone into the art design and creation of the open world. Each area and controlling gang faction has its own distinct culture, even though CDPR is parroting the same tired 80s cultural clichés for the different ethnic groups of each gang. If you’ve seen one cyberpunk dystopia that suggests that Asia is coming to dominate US culture, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of where this game is in terms of starting point. Maybe add a few more explicit adverts and edgy billboards and adult shops than the normal expectation. (Cyberpunk is a very mature game for mature adults after all)
But the world is filled with colour, neon and the labyrinthine network of raised highways that pass between towering skyscrapers makes for an impressive visual display. There are layers to the city’s presentation that deserve plaudits. Unfortunately it’s also a completely hollow facade.
There’s no justification or reward for exploring the city beyond a pretty skyline.
Every single important feature of the game has an icon floating above it on the game map. Unless one of those symbols is there, there’s nothing to see or engage with. No reason to explore.
There are entire streets of Night City that have interaction triggers on their doors. In most instances, that interaction reads “Open Door -[Locked]” and that’s all it will ever say. I’m not even sure what the point of letting the player see this option is. The only thing I can think of is the implication that this somehow makes the world feel bigger, because of the hope that one time the door might not be locked.
As discussed above, there are shops everywhere that aren’t necessary. But this is an open world so it needs to have interactable shops and locations to match every other open world game.
There was a decision made at some point to make this game open world, in spite of the fact that there’s no reason this game couldn’t have been made up of levels, or even smaller scale hub maps.
Compare this to the obvious reference points for this type of open world game. Your Grand Theft Autos, your Saints Rows. They make the locations you can visit meaningful through things like pool and darts minigames or the like. They aren’t a prime attraction, but there’s at least some reason to engage with them on a mechanical or exploratory level.
Equally, those games make a point of adding a certain random element to the open world that’s absolutely missing from Cyberpunk. There are cops on the streets of Night City. But they don’t act like any I’ve ever seen in any other game. They generally occupy a fixed position on the map, same as the gangs, so easy to avoid. But point a weapon at a civilian or harm one in any way, and cops or security drones will begin spawning in around you en masse. They will then continue spawning in less and less likely locations until you break their line of sight. Break line of sight, or get maybe 100m away, and they will pretty much never find you. This goes double for driving accidents.
There are no car chases that aren’t scripted in Cyberpunk 2077. Drive a minute or so away from a crime and it basically never happened.
So literally the only meaningful gameplay in the open world of Night City is going to a specific highlighted location to fight a small group of enemies, or going to a specific highlighted location to complete a mission. For all the work and time spent getting the open world functioning, it’s an evermore disappointing experience as the game goes on. There’s never any feeling that you’re being rewarded for your exploration, and if there’s not, what’s even the point of having an open world instead of a series of hubs and levels?
It’s a sign of a design philosophy that desperately wanted an open world, and all the trappings of one, without any clear communication to the player as to why. It’s another example of an ambitious scope that’s clearly not been able to be met in the final result. Take for example, the fact that features like Wall Running were in development, but had to be cancelled. You can tell there’s meant to be more to this world to explore and interact with, but an overreach in scope has meant features have been stripped back.
To be clear, I don’t blame the development team for this. It’s unfortunate, but they have done a remarkable job under clearly difficult circumstances. Again, Night City is beautiful. But whatever decisions were made that had to be implemented were clearly not fair on them. Open worlds are always built around that suspension of disbelief. It’s an agreement between the player and the game. Cyberpunk just doesn’t hold up it’s end of the deal.
An Entomology Lesson
And thus we come to what is currently the most egregious failing for Cyberpunk 2077 that isn’t system based. There are structural problems throughout, between scope reduction and then the ever present bugs and issues. Disbelief didn’t stand a chance.
I get it. More than a lot of people, I’ll absolutely argue that no QA department and Dev team in the world would be able to completely eliminate issues, especially in an open world game the size and complexity of Cyberpunk. It’s an unreasonable expectation.
But here’s the thing. CDPR deliberately delayed this game for months to fix bugs. During that time, they encouraged (or being far too charitable, didn’t discourage) crunch conditions for their teams. And yet the game still released in this state, potentially even worse because burned out staff weren’t able to make progress and CDPR wouldn’t delay the game any further.
Without going into some of the more unique issues like crashes to desktop, here are just a few of the issues that repeated throughout my playthrough:
- -The combat status trigger never resolving, so the mission can’t be completed by launching conversations when combat ends. Required reverting to earlier save.
- The green overlay for the Hacking view bugging out. This meant it was impossible to equip weapons or activate objects while that was up. Required reverting to earlier save.
- Physics objects in the open world reacting violently to the player brushing against them. Especially bin bags causing damage and even death.
- In Cutscenes, effects like blood that should have been applied to the hand model instead floating 3-4 inches above. Spooky and distracting.
- In Cutscenes (including plot critical ones), character models and level geometry failing to appear or glitching directly through the player.
- Enemy Combat AI repeatedly locking the model in a specific animation loop. Wouldn’t stop until the animation was broken by a physics effect knocking them back or death.
- – Loot (including mission critical items) that displayed a “collectable” hovering icon, but could not actually be collected. Required reverting to an earlier save.
And these were just the consistent ones that caused problems. On a PC running the recommended settings! On a PS4 or Xbox One it’s even worse supposedly. There were dozens of doors that clipped through walls, enemies that t-posed, lighting effects that didn’t trigger.
It’s exhausting. The time wasted replaying parts of missions I’d already completed because of bugs is a terrible feeling.
You can’t try to be an immersive sim where the immersion breaks every few minutes. Cyberpunk gives it a hell of a try.
Not my (Human) Revolution
The above is a laundry list of flaws, and it’s impossible to talk about this game without recognising them. But what makes Cyberpunk 2077 absolutely infuriating is that all of those systems and over designed features are actively impeding some good elements from shining through. The immersive sim elements end up being a successor to the likes of Deus Ex, paired with some solid enough mission design on the gigs and side missions.
Generally missions of all sorts end up being confined to one specific, designed area. You’ll be given free reign (most of the time) to approach it in whatever way you like. Experimentation is encouraged. For smaller side missions and gigs, this can be a single building, where you’ll accomplish a single objective. These often have the most freedom. With a little careful planning and ingenuity, you can engineer some very entertaining plans. By comparison, the main story missions normally narrow the options available a little bit, by being set in areas that are off the main game world of Night City and with a more focussed objective. They also go on a bit, with some taking a long time to play through their multi stage objectives. But broadly the overall design is positive, if slightly familiar to players of immersive sims in the past.
Because this is a first person sci fi immersive sim, and so your options tend to follow the traditional pathways. You can hit people with weapons up close, shoot people with weapons from far away, try and stealth around and never be seen, or hack your way through the missions.
As is my preference for these games, I generally built towards stealth and hacking. I think it’s a point of good design that while there were some missions that were definitely built to require a specific playstyle, the majority provided equal opportunities for all methods. In particular, while it definitely takes more effort, the ability to play “non-lethally” is there. Blunt melee weapons will knock people out, while my longstanding weapon for most of the game was a double barrelled shotgun that SOMEHOW had been modified to be non lethal. There’s a slight wrinkle in there that when fighting bosses, only the last hit counts. So the 10 grenades and 200 bullets I put into a cyberpsycho didn’t count as lethal. Because I used a baseball bat to finish them off.
The stealth is broadly fine, with Hitman-esque takedowns and the ability to hide bodies. There were a few instances where the glitchiness of the game (especially with enemy AI reacting unpredictably for all the wrong reasons) made things frustrating as a result, but pairing it with the hacking tools made for a very Deus Ex style experience.
The hacking in particular felt very satisfying. At any time, V can activate their scanner eyes. Time slows, and They can then see every interactable object and electronic in the room. Coming right from the playbook of 2009, it’s Detective Vision! (Or 2002/Metroid Vision if we’re being purists)
Pop a very matrix-y green filter over the scene, make an environmental artist cry as you ruin their colour composition, and then get to hacking and looting. The hacking is fun, finding a sequence of numbers in a pattern of alternating set of rows and columns. It’s not too complex, but for the amount you’ll be performing the hack activities, it really couldn’t be. However, the main issue, as it always is with this mechanic, is that it’s too valuable. There’s no reason to not continually flick the mode back on to strip a room of valuables and interactables. It’s the same problem as the open world design. Everything is immediately marked and categorised for your attention, no reason to explore.
You may have noticed a theme here. CDPR take on already proven gameplay mechanics and slot them all together. As this is a first person immersive sim, the core components of combat are familiar too.
The shooting and melee combat come under the general rules for first person games where your accuracy/skills get modified by upgrading stats, in the vein of modern Fallout. They’re fairly clunky to start with. An unmodified V often has to fight recoil or do a whole lot more swinging to take anything down. As you advance through the skill tree and specialise, this does improve to some degree. Though the skill tree has its own problems.
I don’t necessarily hate the RPG style character progression. There are maybe a few too many “increase melee damage by 10%” style perks or nebulous options like “shotguns cause more knockback”. But equally, there’s a few perks that feel nigh essential. I have a great fondness for all the options that increase your movement abilities in the game, allowing for shooting while sliding or dodging for example. Meaningful changes that feel like your V is making good use of those augments and upgrades.
What I do absolutely hate though is the strange method CDPR have chosen for changing your choices. It’s a good thing in game money is worthless, because you’ll need 100,000 dollars to buy the item that lets you respec. On top of that you can only reallocate your perks, not the overall skill points. Realised too late that you’ve made a mistake and will now be one point short of that cool ability you wanted? Well, tough luck. Make do or reset the save.
Broadly though combat wise, I found the balance in straight fights very frustrating. Playing on Hard, the game either felt as if I was being instantly wiped out by massive amounts of damage from all directions, or able to take out squads of enemies way too quickly in only one or two shots. It’s a holdover of the RPG systems design, tied in with the limited AI of the combat. I can’t even necessarily attribute it to scope creep, but enemies rarely display any level of smart play. And the glitches here are even more frustrating.
One of the first minibosses I fought was a cyberpsycho with a big health bar. I was pretty underleveled for the fight, so was ready for a challenge. But he accidentally ran into the corner of an arena and couldn’t turn round. Two minutes of thwacking him with a baseball bat on the back of the head later and I had a very unsatisfying mission complete screen.
Human Soul in a Broken Shell
As someone who didn’t particularly care for the combat mechanics in Witcher 3, I was at least expecting that the writing and narrative from CDPR would be a good enough reason to cope with it. And honestly, it’s probably as all over the place as the rest of the game. But the high points are impressive.
There’s moments of humanity in this maladjusted cyborg of a game. The (female coded) voice acting on my V consistently impressed me. They had an uncanny ability to switch from streetwise sarcasm to emotional trauma responses. On more than one occasion, my heart broke at a specific line delivery. While there are conversation options for the player to choose, a la an RPG, it’s often more of a choice of tone than anything else. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think the fixed characterisation for my V was exactly what I wanted, but your mileage may vary.
This was brought about by a writing team that alternated between tired meme missions (Jesus Christ, whoever put together the missions with entire dialogue portions lifted straight out of The Office and Portal needs a talking to), trite truisms (a reference to the ship of Theseus towards the end of the game made me audibly groan) and some genuinely moving scenes. Some of the latter that left me unsettled by how explicitly dark they were, even if they did lean heavily into some edgy tropes that haven’t necessarily stood the test of time. And I get it. The writing quality is always going to fluctuate on a game that is this big, and has been in development for this long. It’d just be nice if the seams weren’t quite so visible between drafts.
In spite of that though, the side character work may be the best part of the whole game. Jackie, Judy, Claire and almost every side character in the game are astonishingly well written and acted compared to even the rest of the game. Facial textures and animations that somehow never manage to cross into the uncanny valley anchor strong conversation scenes. These deal with well motivated characters that, in spite of their basis in regressive/boring tropes, end up being compelling in their own way. I think one of the highest compliments I can give is that there were multiple characters that I absolutely hated on first impression. Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Silverhand in particular comes off as the worst asshole for the majority of the time you spend with him. And yet through the writing, the performance and the animations, I came to at least understand or even appreciate them.
Pair all of the above with a narrative that “mostly” understands that the world of Cyberpunk is a goddamn disaster. Everyone who wants to take part in it ends up broken and corrupted. It’s a narrative that ultimately goes so far against the marketing focus. I can’t help but wonder if it will end up either going over people’s heads, or just leave a bad taste in their mouths compared to what they might expect.
There’s a system in the tabletop where if the player loses their “humanity” by taking on many augments, suffering Cyberpsychosis. In some instances, this involved the player’s character being taken for use by the gamemaster. Cyberpunk 2077 attempts to deal with this in the narrative of the game, rather than the mechanics. Mechanically, in the game, it can’t work. The gameplay of cyberpunk is about power acquisition and growth. Punishing the player for too many augments goes against that design.
So instead, for story reasons that I won’t go into, Vs humanity and soul begin to be questioned. The loss of agency is a casualty of the form. But I think the team have done a pretty good job conveying a deeply sad, deeply angry story about deeply sad, deeply angry people trying to lash out at the world. It’s just a shame about everything in the game around that story not backing it up.
Not more than the sum of it’s Parts
Every time I started to relax and enjoy Cyberpunk 2077, some form of friction would turn up and frustrate me. That’s the whole of it. There’s all the good writing, evocative voice acting and stunning visuals. They deserve praise. They put a solid enough effort in that I can try and push past everything else.
It’s just hard to stay focussed on them when the rest of the game feels so abrasive. Even from before putting my hands on a keyboard, CDPR were actively harming themselves with their marketing and obfuscation strategies. The game continued that pattern.
I just wanted to be immersed in Night City and Cyberpunk 2077. It’s hard to do that when the hidden depths are obscured by so much flotsam.
Up until 18/12/2020, it was also available for PlayStation systems. Sony delisted the game on that date from their store due to complaints. That has never happened before for a game of this scale and prestige. Which should tell you a lot about the technical problems.
Based on all evidence available, I would strongly advise waiting to buy the game till patches improve the performance. Potentially even if you have an Xbox Series X, or reasonably powerful PC.